Not Your Same Old Racquet and Stick

Photographs By Bob Capazzo

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Let’s say that you are of a certain age, and in the carefree, happy days of your youth, you whiled away your time playing some of the old standby sports such as — for the purposes of this story, at least — tennis and squash, ice or field hockey, or lacrosse.

If you did, then here’s a news flash: The sports you played and loved are not the same games your kids are playing today.

Oh, the rules are basically the same (except, say, in the case of the National Hockey League, which is going through conniptions trying to lure fans back to a game that is unwatchable on television and features players no one has ever heard of), but the kids are generally bigger, faster and much better coached and conditioned. The biggest change, however, is in the equipment.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, one ice hockey stick was pretty much the same as the next — all wood with friction tape wrapped around the blade and a gob of the stuff at the end of the stick. Players might customize it by curving the blade (thank you, Bobby Hull), but that was about it. Tennis and squash racquets? Wooden frames, gut strings and slick leather grips. Field hockey sticks? If you’d seen one, you’d seen them all, and the same was pretty much true for lacrosse.

Today, however, the equipment used for all five sports comes in a staggering variety of colors, materials and designs, all easily customized to suit the specific needs and preferences of the athletes who use it. The days of off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all are long gone and scarcely lamented.

A man on the cutting edge of all this is Mark Hayden, whose Greenwich and Denver-based Harrow Sports is a leading designer and manufacturer of the equipment and accessories used in these sports. Although design work is done in Denver, unsurprisingly much of the manufacturing takes place in Chinese factories.

A visit to the company’s West Putnum Avenue office would be a field day for a sports junkie of any age, but particularly for kids who live and breathe their favorite sports. On one wall hangs a goalie stick signed by Jim Craig, one of the stars of the 1981 U.S. Olympic team. Sticks and racquets of every design and color seem to take up space exponentially, filling any void that should offer itself even momentarily. Some are examples of best-selling models while others are works in progress, which may or may not make it into full production. Just as sharks need to swim to stay alive, sports equipment companies need to innovate to remain successful, and it is this philosophy which is at the heart of Harrow’s considerable success. Take Bancroft Sports, a textbook example of what happens when creative inertia leads to commercial stagnation.

“Bancroft (which was founded in 1882) was the tennis racquet company for a very long time,” says Hayden, who lives in Greenwich with his wife of fifteen years, Diana, and their three kids, Will, twelve, John, eleven, and Catherine, nine. “There was Dunlop and Wilson and a few others, but Bancroft was the dominant racquet. It had as much as 80 percent of the market share at one time, but as the sport began to change in the late 1970s, they didn’t make the migration from wood to other materials like metal.”

While such devotion to tradition is certainly admirable (and who’s to say that tennis wasn’t a better sport in the days of the woodies?), it was a recipe for economic suicide.

“We decided to buy the company because, even though it had lost a huge amount of market share, it was still a great name in the sport,” says Hayden, a fit, handsome man who dominates his office, as much by his sheer enthusiasm as by his presence. Spend any time in the office and you sense that he absolutely energizes the place, and the rest of the staff is powered by that energy and enthusiasm — and by their sheer love of sports.
“I love brands and spent my career developing them,” Hayden remarks. “A strong, successful brand has a lot of power. We hear from people all the time who have such fond memories of the Bancrofts they played with years ago. That kind of brand recognition and loyalty is very difficult to create from scratch.”

Bancroft was also big in the squash world, which is the first sport that Harrow was involved in and where the company got its name.

“Harrow is the school in London where squash was created, so it seemed like a good fit,” says Hayden. “We didn’t have a grand design to expand into the other sports, but as the opportunities presented themselves, it seemed like a logical way to grow.”

A similar dynamic took place when Harrow purchased the Christian Brothers Hockey company, the dominant manufacturer of hockey sticks in the world. The company was started by Roger and Bill Christian, two members of the “Forgotten Miracle” team that won the hockey gold medal for the United States at the 1960 Olympics.

“It wasn’t quite like Bancroft, because the company had actually been very innovative,” says Hayden. “We liked it because it was a dominant company in a niche sport that was a good fit with our other sports.”